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Bob Hope Collection, The (DVD Review)

6 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 12/7/10
Shout! Factory/Vivendi
$34.93 three-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour.

Hope was so savvy when it came to knowing the color of money that I doubt he’d have ever allowed the movies he controlled to fall absolutely into the public domain. Yet there must have been a kind of murky area involved because many of his postwar Paramount releases — that is, the ones that fell out of studio control and into his hands — have long had the soundtracks and especially the looks of “public domain hell.” Some of this set’s five titles have been released in so many versions that it would be easy to blink and miss what this box has to offer. Which is: much improved renderings with only one significant technical boo-boo to make the knowledgeable scratch their heads.

Ironically, the most beautiful rendering here serves the collection’s only below-average comedy: 1952’s Road to Bali. I once wrote a USA Today piece listing my favorite “Road” pictures in order of preference: Utopia, Rio, Morocco (all personal favorites), then Zanzibar, Bali and Hong Kong. This got me a phone call from a well-known Major League Baseball radio announcer who just wanted me to know that this was the exact same order in which he’d have ranked them himself — and to extend an open invitation to join him in the booth sometime (which I stupidly never got around to accepting). Except that now I’m inclined to list Bali dead last after just having re-seen it. At least Hong Kong has the finale where Hope and Bing Crosby blast into space and land on a faraway planet — whereupon they’re greeted by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, a couple babes and a martini shaker.

This said, the Bali print here looks gorgeous — exactly the way vintage Paramount Technicolor is supposed to look, which is doubly important because it’s the only "Road" picture shot in color. And even though they represent almost all the laughs there are to be had, there are also memorable cameos from Bing’s bandleader brother Bob, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis (before they’d made a color movie of their own) and a rather amazing finale in which it’s strongly implied that Bing is about to go off for a threesome with Dorothy Lamour and Jane Russell. Even Humphrey Bogart shows up, though this is actually a clip from The African Queen that someone must have borrowed from producer Sam Spiegel either as a favor or for the cost of a couple jungle leeches.

Rio, on the other hand, is prime stuff — above and beyond the fact that it ranked right at the top with 1948’s biggest box office hits. You get Bing and the Andrews Sisters doing the infectiously up-tempo You Don’t Have To Know the Language; Gale Sondergaard being sinister (there are frequent jokes about hypnotism in which she’s usually involved); a funny ship’s bit involving seasickness; and a riotous finale with frequent Hope foil Jerry Colona. Hope was in his big-screen prime right about this time, an era that also encompasses 1947’s My Favorite Brunette, which has been previously been relegated to all kinds of wretched home market prints going all the way back to the early days of VHS. Firmly in the spirit of putting Hope in a trench coat to spoof film noir, it also features Alan Ladd in an unbilled cameo the same year he was switching images himself by singing "Tallahassee" (and not badly) in Paramount’s all-star Variety Girl. There’s a second unbilled guest appearance as well — a classic, in fact —but this is serious spoiler material.

Of the black-and-white comedies here, Brunette probably represents the biggest proportional jump in print quality — though in terms of “glisten,” the best is 1951’s Christmas-themed The Lemon Drop Kid, which Shout! Factory has also just issued as a $9.99 solo release. A racetrack caper that introduced Silver Bells to the permanent holiday songbook, this is one of the better Damon Runyon fables. It was filmed just two years after Hope’s popular Runyon comedy Sorrowful Jones, his first of four screen teamings with Lucille Ball (to say nothing of his appearance in one of the best "I Love Lucy" episodes ever). And wrapping up the set is 1955’s The Seven Little Foys — which is simultaneously one of Hope’s beloved movies and this collection’s one misstep. The Technicolor values are adequate (if not first-rate), but couldn’t someone in charge land a VistaVision print? The one here has a 1.33:1 aspect ratio when it ought to be 1.85:1 and simply looks “off,” though not fatally so.

In 2006, someone released a nine-title set — which I neither own nor have seen — that included the five comedies here. Some people claim the prints were much improved over what had come before while others disagreed. But everyone concurred that the packaging stacked the discs on a spindle atop another (much as, I’m assuming, Sony has done with some of its cheaper TV collections). That atrocity very much makes it sound as if this release is the way to go — though if there is eventually a second volume, I hope someone finds a way to letterbox the 2.35:1 Paris Holiday, which was shot in Technirama (not that it’d ever been a title to elicit much shouting from the rooftops other than from perhaps the Anita Ekberg claque.) In fact, a second volume would really be mandatory so we can have a remastered Son of Paleface. Also controlled by Hope Enterprises, that 1952 sequel has been widely regarded for years as Hope’s best comedy outside of (arguably) the best Road pics. By me, too.

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